Spirit and aspirations of a people: Reflections of Temple's architect

31 August 2017

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia — Every day since Sochet Vitou Tang embarked on the journey to design the Baha'i House of Worship in Battambang just over two years ago, there has been a sense of joy in the process.

"Of course, the day our design was selected was a moment that stands out," says the Cambodian architect. "But I have enjoyed every day of working on this project and seeing the way of life of a Baha'i community."

In mid-2014, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Cambodia invited a number of architects from the region to participate in a design selection process, seeking the conception of an edifice that would create an atmosphere of unity, peace, and spiritual upliftment. Those architects—among them Mr. Tang's team, Architecture Design Intelligence (ADI)—were invited to visit the project site in Battambang and learn about the Baha'i community there, obtaining a sense of its spirit and aspirations.

"That was when I started to feel like this was going to be a real project," says Mr. Tang, about his visit to Battambang in August 2014. "We started to do more research about the Baha'i Faith, and the more I could see the significance of the project, the more I was inspired to commit my heart and soul."

Throughout his career, spirituality has played a large role in Mr. Tang's work. The architect himself is Buddhist, and through the project he learned much about the teachings of the Baha'i Faith. It was the principle of unity that struck him most profoundly—unity of religion, of all communities, of all races and people that is brought about through the intimate relationship between worshipping God and serving mankind.

The architecture team sought to portray in the design the consonance between "being"—that is to say, increasing one's understanding of the divine teachings and reflecting spiritual qualities in one's personal life—and "doing"—that is, arising in service and accompanying other souls.

"The idea of a Baha'i Temple was completely new to me," Mr. Tang reflects. "If you talk just about the scale and size, it is not that large a project. But if you talk about the function and purpose of the Temple, it is, to me, a great building."

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Raised within the House of Worship is a sacred symbol that represents the connection between God, His Manifestations, and mankind.

The requirements set before the team at ADI challenged them to design a Temple that would reflect the local culture of Cambodia, as well as inspire feelings of harmony and peace. In planning the Temple, they were told that, when possible, it would be preferable to construct the building from materials indigenous to the region, striving to raise a modest yet beautiful structure.

To design an edifice that would both be coherent with the environment and evoke feelings of unity, Mr. Tang drew inspiration from Cambodia's rich architectural heritage. The team then sought to design a Temple in keeping with the community, way of life, and natural environment of Battambang—a Temple that would evince spiritual qualities, harmonizing the material and spiritual worlds.

The Baha'i Faith first came to Cambodia in the 1950s. However, it was not until the 1990s that the Baha'is had begun to emerge as a group respected for their dedication to service, development, and education.

It was the strong connection between service to the community and worship to God cultivated through decades of careful attention and effort in Cambodia that led the Universal House of Justice to announce in 2012 that Battambang would be among one of the first localities in the world to build a local House of Worship.

The Temple, which will be dedicated tomorrow, stands as a tribute to the enthusiasm with which the people of Battambang, and indeed throughout Cambodia, have responded to the Faith's ideals. Its design is distinctively Cambodian, reflecting the traditional beauty and refinement of the culture while using modern architectural techniques.

Signaling their readiness for this new "dawning point of light," the community that lives around the House of Worship has already been permeated by a spirit of prayer and devotion. Throughout the many months of construction, they volunteered their assistance to this collective enterprise.

Reflecting on the entire process, Mr. Tang considers the unique approach his team adopted of integrating the pursuit of material perfection and manifesting spiritual principles in their work on the Temple. "I am thankful for this small part in making the Baha'i House of Worship in Battambang a reality," he says.

"It has been the kind of project that pushes you mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It challenges your imagination as an architect to create something dedicated to the purpose of serving people from all walks of life. It is the kind of thing that I have really loved to do."